Dogs sure like to talk, don’t they? They serenade us before supper. They chatter away at chipmunks. They’re on the bullhorn lickety-split if anyone has the temerity to approach our front door. They howl mournfully at the ambulance, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, they bark as they dream. Most of the time, dogs bark a reasonable amount and no more. But sometimes, some dogs are a bit too chatty. A bit too talky. A bit too much.
First, Ask Yourself—Is My Dog Really Barking Too Much?
The first question to ask yourself is if it really is too much. You brought a furry social carnivore into your home—and the “social” part is important, because animals that typically live in groups have evolved to be communicative. So this ecstatic carnivore currently sharing your life and deeply bonded to you has evolved with a strong need to communicate audibly for the good of the family group. A dog might bark when he’s startled, bark when she anticipates dinner or walkies, and bark when someone is at the door. If it’s only a few barks, and it’s only a few times a day, it might be perfectly reasonable to just let it happen. If none of your neighbours are calling the condo association or reporting you to the town hall, and you’re not reaching for the headache medication at the first shrill boof, then you have the option to just sit back and ignore. But if your dog’s barking is driving you up the wall, or if your neighbours are complaining, or your spouse is getting rather indelicately riled, it’s time to do something. And luckily, there’s a lot to be done.
Note: This article is focused on dogs who are barking excessively at home, such as at the window or at guests; and not out and about on-leash. If you have a dog who is a Tasmanian devil on leashed walks, find a great reactive dog class in your area and sign right up. Finding the right trainer can be challenging so you’ll have to do some detective work to ensure the trainer you choose is a good fit and uses modern, ethical, and humane techniques. To that end, here’s a great article on how to choose a dog trainer.
So, What Do You Do With a Barking Dog?
The easiest, and sometimes most effective, thing to do is to cast a critical eye around your home and ask what you can change to reduce barking. Does your dog sit on the couch, glance out the window, and bark at every human who walks by? Simply prevent your dog from being able to see the street: buy a translucent privacy sticker for your window. Or close the drapes, especially during peak foot traffic hours. Buy blinds. Move the couch. Give your dog their daily stuffed and frozen Kong or other treat-dispensing toy during the times kids are heading to school. For some other ideas about food toys and enrichment, here’s a great article. If your dog spends a lot of time in the backyard barking at anything that moves, keep them inside during high traffic times and balance out their reduced yard time with a longer walk and more fun stuff inside, like training, chewies, and games. These changes to your home environment are especially important if you’re getting noise complaints when you’re not home. And if that’s the case, do a check for separation anxiety, too. This link will take you a website of a separation anxiety specialist, who can help assess your dog.
If the drapery approach won’t work, or if you want your dog to be able to enjoy Life On My Street TV, you can also train your dog to bark less. First of all, you need to categorize your dog’s barking into one of two main types. There is barking that is motivated by fearfulness on the one hand, and barking that is motivated by everything else on the other hand. The latter includes “alarm” barking, playful barking, “demand” or request barking, and so on.
Is Your Dog Barking Out of Fear?
Dogs who are barking because they are scared can usually be identified by their behaviour and body language. They might bark with a typical woo-woo-woo sound. They might tuck their tails and be a bit hunched, sometimes turning to the side. Their ears might be down and back. They might approach your guests and then retreat. Often, if given the chance, they’ll exit the situation. Dogs who are even more scared will bark in a frantic way, or more deeply. The barking may be accompanied by growling. Their hackles may be raised. These dogs will generally stop barking if the thing they’re barking at—typically a person or another dog—goes further away. In fact, getting some distance from the scary thing is the very reason that scared dogs bark.
Not all barking dogs are scared, though, and scared dogs and non-scared dogs need a different training approach. If you’re still unsure, ask yourself one more question. What does my dog do, when face-to-face with the very person or dog he’s barking at? When the mail carrier stops for a chat, does your dog bark for the entire ten minutes, running up and down the stairs, frantic? Does he hide in the kitchen, barking or trembling? He’s scared. Does he stop barking after a few moments and jump up on the mail carrier, asking her for patting and licking her hands? Not scared. When a dog comes over, does he run and hide behind a chair? That’s a sign he’s scared. Does he bark until play starts, and then race around the house, knocking into knees and having a blast? Not scared. Does he bark out the window at kids walking by, but approach them readily in your home and ask for patting? Not scared. On the other hand, if he tries to back out of his collar and run home when you pass the school yard, your dog is telling you he’s scared.
What To Do If Your Dog is Scared
If your dog is barking because he is scared, or if you can’t tell for sure (and it’s not always easy), do your best to keep him away from what might be scaring him for now, and hire a dog trainer skilled in working with fearful dogs. They’ll help your dog to feel less scared, and when that happens, the barking will go away all by itself.
How To Reduce Barking in a Dog Who Isn’t Barking out of Fear
If you have a dog who approaches and greets people and dogs happily, but still barks a whole heck of a lot at them (or you), read on. There are a couple of ways to reduce barking that work for many dogs.
Approach One: Train Your Dog To Do Something Else Instead
This approach is a tiny bit sneaky. We train your dog to do something else instead of barking: running and grabbing a toy. Unsurprisingly, most dogs don’t bark if they’re holding something in their mouth. This method assumes that your dog already grabs a toy on cue—usually some variation of “Go Get It!” If your dog doesn’t care about toys (and you’ve auditioned a bunch from the pet store) scroll on down to approach two.
When the doorbell rings or people walk by outside and your dog barks a couple of preliminary boofs, go ahead and give your usual cue for this other thing. “Go Get It!” For the first twenty or so times, you’ll want to help your dog to do this new (and kind of weird, in their eyes) behaviour. This is extremely hard work for a dog, to switch gears. So after you say “go get it,” run to his toy box and grab his favourite toy. Wave it around in front of your dog and make happy, trilling, excited sounds. When he finally grabs it, reinforce heartily: if he likes playing tug, play a nice satisfying round of tug. If fetch is his game of choice, give him a few tosses down the hall. You may also use food here to reinforce him grabbing the toy, if your dog likes toys but doesn’t looooove them, so needs the paycheque of a delicious treat. Simply take the toy and give your dog a treat, as a “thank-you” for him bringing the toy over.
After the first twenty times, make it a bit harder for your dog; “help” less. Just offer the cue, “Go get it!” after the first few boofs and see if he runs for the toy bin. For now, continue to reinforce your dog’s new behaviour using tug, fetch, or food, and reinforce every single time. You can start to reinforce the behaviour less often—say every second or third time he brings you the toy—when the dog has shown you he’s ready: he heads off and grabs the toy after a bark or two, without you even needing to say the cue, twenty times in a row. If you stop reinforcing too early, your dog will simply go back to barking, which is naturally reinforcing. You gotta pay if you want him to play.
Approach Two: Time Out For Barking
This approach can be used instead of, or in addition to, the toy game. We’ll simply give your dog a time-out in a penalty box if she barks too much. We generally allow our dogs a couple of barks for free, because they are, after all, dogs. (See the bit about “social carnivore in our homes” above).
Using time-outs is effective to reduce barking, and is easy-peasy, but for many people the whole process is a royal pain in the Afghan Hound. Let first me explain how it works, and then where many people fall down on the job.
Your dog barks. You say “Quiet please!” in a friendly, upbeat tone. You’re on your dog’s team here—you’re not an enforcer but a friend. If your dog continues to bark, which she almost certainly will in the beginning, you say, quite sadly, “Time out.” Again, you’re on their team. No need for rough or angry tones or movements. After you say “Time out,” gently take your dog by the collar and lead her carefully to the bathroom or another back room, and shut the door. The penalty? A 30-second break from what she enjoys: the window, the couch, and you. After 30 seconds, release her and go on with your day. She might immediately go back to the window or your guest and start barking. Although this seems frustrating, it’s actually handy for the cause. You’re right there and ready to give her another warning: “Quiet please!” And you’re also ready to do another time-out, which she’ll almost certainly need. If your dog is barking while in the penalty box, wait until the barking stops for ten seconds before letting her out.
Well hang on, you might be thinking. This doesn’t sound that bad. And you’re right—it doesn’t sound bad! The real hard part is sticking to it, for the number of time-outs that most dogs need. Most dogs need somewhere around 15 to 20 time-outs before it dawns on them: barking earns them a stint in the penalty box. And that’s 15 or 20 time-outs in a row, for the exact same behaviour, with no human frailty like “well I just don’t feel like it right now” or “it’s midnight, I’m too tired so I’ll let it go” or “I’m heading out the door for work and can’t put my coffee down” or anything. After the 20th time-out in a row, you’ll generally have a dog who has learned to temper their barking mightily, after the sweetly-intoned “Quiet please.”
How can you ensure you won’t be the type to just give up too early, on either of these techniques? Tape a scrap of paper on the fridge, with a pen nearby. Every time you give your dog a time-out or help them to the toy box, you get to add a tally mark to the page. Keep track: you’ll get there.
Both of These Approaches are Enriching for Your Dog
Using time-outs to reduce barking can allow your dog to continue a favoured activity: hanging out and watching his world go by, which is interesting and enriching for many dogs. In fact, both of these training approaches are enriching. Dogs in training are putting things together and using the power of learning to change their minds, their behaviour, and what they get from their worlds. In the Get Your Toy approach, they learn that seeing people or dogs go by is a cue that means that you’ll play with them. In approach two, they learn that the way to keep Life On My Street TV turned on and ready to watch is by limiting their barking to only a couple of satisfying boofs.
If These Approaches Don’t Work, It’s Time to Call in a Pro
Finally, if your barking dog is giving you headaches and neither of these approaches are working, even after a college try (ahem: tally marks on the paper), call in a pro. We are trained to help both you and your dog and can quickly diagnose, propose a plan, and cheerlead you into a new, much more quiet, existence.
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